Outlaws by George V. Higgins (Holt: $17.95; 360 pp.)
“Outlaws” is a perversely engrossing novel: Engrossing because its vivid characters struggle in the slippery coils of large intractable questions; perverse because George V. Higgins successfully breaks half the commandments on the holy tablets of “How to Write Good.”
The story stretches from Aug. 4, 1970 through Sept. 9, 1986 (George V. Higgins dates many chapters as methodically as Sgt. Friday dictating a report), and though characters describe events all over the world, much of the action unrolls along the Northeast corridor between Boston and New York.
Inspector John Richards of the Massachusetts State Police is tracking a disciplined gang who knock over armored cars at infrequent intervals for large profits. It takes four dogged years to identify the leader and three more to link the gang to a drug-related robbery that killed seven people. The gang is captured, prosecuted, and dealt with--more or less.
But “more or less” isn’t good enough for some people. The gang was a tiny group of terrorists--leftover student radicals who robbed to finance a revolution whose goals were fogged by drugs and cant, but whose means were explicitly lethal. The brilliant sociopath who mesmerized these Establishment children has beaten most of the rap, and by May, 1985, he has emerged from the bin where his insanity plea landed him, and disappeared. In the novel’s second half, three groups of people with widely differing motives set out to track him again. To reveal the result would be unfair, but it is fair to say that the motives of the pursuers are more important than the outcome of the chase.
“Outlaws” is richly satisfying, in part because, in this 15th book since “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” in 1972, Higgins is a master craftsman. He sets a scene with a sardonic eye for visual details (the description of a computer wizard’s quirky office is particularly choice). He pegs characters adroitly with small giveaway touches of dress and manner. He leavens serious matters with wry, intelligent humor. (An indifferent menu offers “six-ounce hamburgers with a variety of improvements.”) His championship bouts of dialogue are funny, feisty, profane, and apparently stenographic until you notice their artful compression. If they sometimes sound like good stage dialogue, that’s simply Higgins’ trademark.
The author can stage a scene like George Abbott in tournament trim. The 84-page trial that ends the first half of the story is the best dramatization of its kind I’ve read.
But this mid-book placement of the climactic trial is also a prime example of Higgins’ contempt for conventional story construction. That trial “ought” to end the book (watch Hollywood buy “Outlaws” and then film the first half). Other peculiarities: After the trial, Lt. Richards abandons his protagonist duties and retires to observer status. Sixty pages from the end, several minor characters suddenly take over the narrative. Obligatory scenes such as the capture of the gang, the trial summations, and the final disposition of the villain, are all missing.
In fact, the villain himself is missing. Except for his courtroom testimony, during which he assumes an entirely bogus character, he appears only in the descriptions of others.
But Higgins is not flaunting his ability to ignore conventional narrative wisdom and still keep those pages turning. However engrossing, his story is basically an exemplum for a complex meditation on the law, the values that inform it, the rules that implement it--and finally, the society that has to live with it. To support this meditation, the story follows not the imperatives of the drama but the evolution of the ideas.
The title covers two groups of outlaws: the guerrilla children who are against the law and their power elite elders who are above it. Both groups rob and kill when necessary, insisting that they do so in the service of values that society is too dim to accept; and old and young alike operate with the serenely arrogant conviction that those values are just naturally superior.
At the heart of the book are the rest of us who accept the law and do the best we can with it: the functionaries from judges to street cops who struggle to observe the rules, uphold the law, and articulate their values--often while their personal lives fall apart. Some can never look higher than rules, while others are habitually reflective; but most of these imperfect servants of an imperfect system would agree with the judge who consoles the prosecutor on his defective victory: “ . . . You rode a lame horse a good race and you won most of it. Be grateful for successes, however partial they may be.”
Higgins achieves far more than a partial success, and the reader is grateful for that. “Outlaws” is compelling reading after all, and its ideas are presented not as flat answers but as resonant questions.
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